Gird yourselves for (yet another) rant about my best frenemy, the Young Adult adventure novel. As you may remember from my least popular blog posts, I read YA literature for fun. The kind where a young female protagonist lives in a fantasy or dystopic world and goes on some sort of physically taxing adventure usually to help people. You know, your standard Hunger Games or Divergent fare. I like these books mainly because I like the heroine: she’s strong and clever and brave and talented. She’s a survivor and generally the adventure she goes on helps her friends or family, often also her town or kingdom.
YA books with this type of heroine seem pretty feminist-leaning, but they’re not always. A good amount of the time, the feministy heroine is plunked into a storyline that subtly normalizes racist and sexist cultural standards, and gives a pass to patriarchal gender relations. Only she doesn’t know it, and I suspect neither do the authors. (I hope) most people don’t create media with the intent of replicating the shittier parts of our cultural system. But what ends up happening is that the awesome heroine–a figure that is highly identifiable and consumable to many young adult women–accepts, responds to, and does pretty well in this kinda messed up world.
We in the feminist media studies biz spend a great deal of time illuminating how media producers create seemingly great media that roundabout perpetuates racist, sexist, and heterosexist ideologies. Laura Mulvey described how women’s bodies are positioned in films (for instance, every Hitchcock film) as sex objects to be desired and consumed by both the male protagonist and the audience that gazes at her through the point-of-view of the male protagonist. bell hooks analyzed how Paris is Burning director Jennie Livingston took an important cultural ritual in the lives of poor queer people of Color and presented it as an entertaining spectacle that White audiences laughed at. In both cases, well-intentioned content creators ultimately created a sexist and racist product because they were not careful with how they crafted their media world.
Alison Bechdel developed a simple rubric for gauging if a film creates a relevant context for women. Does the film have 1) two or more women; 2) that talk to each other; 3) about things other than a man.
This test does not evaluate if the film is good, progressive, or feminist. It simply highlights the world of the film in regards to women characters and their holistic value to the plot.
I’ve started my own checklist for the YA novel with a female protagonist. It doesn’t identify if the book is good or even if its feminist. It only evaluates if the world under the heroine’s coat of shiny female empowerment perpetuates sexism, racism, or oppressive heterosexual gender roles.
Ok, the heroine is cool as fuck but…
1) Are there other women around too, or is the heroine mainly surrounded by male figures that are unique and complex like her? If there are other women, are they mainly a) evil queens; b) calculating mothers; c) vapid social climbers; or d) false friends/betrayers? Follow up: did the protagonist have a really great female friend who died or left, conveniently leaving her in need of a new essential partnership?
2) Speaking of the male love interest… Does he sometimes override the heroine’s own self-determination for reasons he feels are valid but she has told him are not? Is he at one point extremely physically or verbally cruel but frames it as something he must do to keep her away from worse danger? When she is in a situation of power over him, does he find ways to carve out power by withholding affection or abandoning her? Does she assume these actions are not because he is a dick but because she is not desirable or has made some type of capital relationship mistake?
3) Does the heroine gets some kind of makeover (in discord with her overall character) and her body is then marked by the male love interest, male friends, or others though stares or comments about her beauty? Does this serve to imply she is more beautiful in feminine trappings than in the clothing/hairstyles she wears for hero tasks?
4) Is there a part where the heroine’s emotional weakness rather than her physical strength and talent becomes the focus? Is that emotional weakness framed as a marker of her realizing “real feelings” for the male love interest? Does he momentarily engage and then withdraw affection in ways that encourage this emotional disorder?
5) Is the heroine’s age clearly articulated as 16 or 17 [under the legal age of consent for the majority of the book’s readership] but the male love interest is ambiguously older or described as a mature adult male? Does this adult male love interest sometimes get really mad and punch the wall close to the teenage heroine’s head or body?
6) Are the sex scenes riddled with creepy phrases such as “he took her mouth” or he “desired to bed her” or whatever other things might seem old timey sexy but enforce his sexual dominance? Is the sexual content triggered by him lecturing/yelling at her for “bad” behavior, or soothing her about some body or emotional insecurity that she could have worked through on her own timeline but that he pushes her to disclose or deal with at his lead?
7) Is rape, sexual assault, or disempowering forms of sex work/prostitution brought up as a threat to the heroine’s physicality or honor but never addressed in terms of how sexual domination is a persistent means of dehumanizing and controlling all women? In other words, is sexual assault a scary shadow used to show the heroine’s ultimate bravery and strength, or is it something the heroine understands is a cultural method of gender oppression that must be dealt with on a larger scale?
8) The heroine probably takes on a masculine or men’s job, skill, or social position. Is she able to do so because everyone feels these gender rules are arbitrary and many women are of a like mind, or is it because she is unique and awesome among women and can do something other women don’t want to or just won’t?
9) And just so we’re not dirtbags ourselves, let’s note if the heroine is described with White features like red hair and pale skin. Oh she is, I’m so surprised. Ok, are all the other main characters described with similar features/skin/hair for no clear geographical reason? Is the only description of someone not White a minor character or group, and are they described as having “golden brown” skin?